The Rally to Restore Journalism

The mood at last weekend's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, co-hosted by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, was undeniably self-congratulatory -- the clever signs, the funny costumes, the motley sing-alongs. After such a long, dark season of economic depression, legislative disappointments, and overexposed "mama grizzlies," it's understandable that people want to laugh away the blues. But if we really want to claim the label of engaged citizens, our laughing must be accompanied by some good ol' self-examination of where and how we get our news.

National Journal's Ben Terris questioned if this weekend's festivities might more aptly have been named the "Rally to Restore Journalism." Indeed, the mainstream media took a deserved whooping during the crisp, sun-dappled day on the National Mall. Interestingly, this was also a major theme of Glenn Beck's rally back in August.

For Saturday's rally, a debate between Colbert and Stewart included montages of fevered fear-mongering -- guys like Beck warning viewers of the dangers of everything from terrorism to flip-flops, complete with Blair Witch Project-like camera effects and exaggerated statistics. The quaintness of yesteryear's question -- "It's 5 p.m., do you know where your children are?" -- has mutated into a pulse-quickening warning -- "Your children might be dead!"

But it wasn't just Fox News' parade of blondes and blowhards that Stewart and Colbert shined a blinding, satirical light on. NPR earned one of Colbert's Fear Awards, a toxic-metal medal with the outline of a man running recklessly with scissors, for its recent firing of Juan Williams. And MSNBC's Keith Olbermann was included in the depressing montage about how childish our public debate has become. The state of our fourth estate is, indeed, a nonpartisan problem.

Stewart's closing call for a less-hyped and harried media was one of the most poignant moments of the day's events. In a moving speech that he reportedly wrote without his team of writers late Friday night, he said, "The press is our immune system. If we overreact to everything, we actually get sicker."

What Stewart didn't say is that it's not just the producers and CEOs at The Walt Disney Company, News Corp, Time Warner, and Viacom who are responsible for curing us of hyperbolic hypervigilance. We, the people, are the ones consuming this 24/7 news cycle. We are like sick patients, complaining that the doctors won't give us the right medicine as we gorge on empty calories and artificial, prepackaged junk. The strength of our politics is inextricably tied to the deliberateness of our consumption. If we choose to learn about the issues via over-the-top media personalities like O'Reilly and Olbermann -- who are cashing in on the madness instead of reporting substantive news -- our political leaders will try to appeal to us in a way that plays well to the media personalities, not the people. In both our media and our politics, style over substance has become the status quo.

Laughing is good, healing even. But pretending that the quarter million people at the rally on Saturday and those tuning in from home are innocent victims is counterproductive. Stewart ended his speech by showing footage of cars bottlenecking into a tunnel, citing their civility as one goes ahead and then the other follows, evidence that real Americans know how to work across demographic and political borders. But is that really enough?

It is our right to demand the kind of media that will make our body politic healthier -- coverage that is more nuanced and accurate, less grandstanding and oversimplified. How do we do that? By reading, watching, and listening to the kind of media we are demanding. It's all well and good to tune in to The Daily Show for 30 minutes each night, but what shows, websites, or publications are you spending your time with during the other 23.5 hours in the day?

I put a challenge to all of the fans of Stewart and Colbert, and it's one that I think both funny men would approve of: Stop watching and reading coverage that doesn't elevate the conversation and start supporting shows and publications that do. Which public intellectuals actually teach you something? Which magazines -- online or off- -- give you reporting that deepens your understanding of crucial issues rather than inflaming your fears? Have you written these news organizations letters of support or, when applicable, donated to keep their vital work going? Have you gotten involved in the vibrant media-justice movement, where folks are serving as watchdogs, training citizen journalists, and developing new models for funding investigative journalism?

These questions are even more pressing at a time when media companies are struggling to stay alive. Forwarding links about Sarah Palin's latest antics or loving to hate Bill O'Reilly sends the message to news producers that you want more of the same. As Stewart said at the rally, "If we amplify everything, we hear nothing." Likewise, if we consume indiscriminately, we demand nothing.

As I left the rally and made my way down Pennsylvania Avenue, I passed the Newseum, where the front pages of newspapers from around the world cover the fa├žade of the building. (You can see even more online, where they publish 579 front pages from two countries daily.) It was a powerful, though unassuming, sight -- a global collage of dogged reporting and opining, quiet in its shades of gray newsprint after so many Technicolor television montages, the dignity after the circus.

Most people walking by after the rally were too drunk on the revelry to stop and take a look.